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Opinion: Gilgo Beach murders are a chilling reminder of the deadly dangers of sex trade


Opinion by Lauren Hersh and Rebecca Zipkin

(CNN) — Last month, New Yorkers gave a collective sigh of relief as police finally apprehended a suspect in the Gilgo Beach serial killings cold case. For 13 years, this Long Island “family man” allegedly targeted, tortured and murdered women in the sex trade. To anyone in prostitution, his presence was a chilling reminder of the deadly dangers of the business.

Robin Miller understands this fear all too well. From 1993 to 1999, Robin was trafficked up and down the West Coast at the exact time the “Green River Killer” hunted, raped and murdered at least 49 prostituted young women and girls. Robin doesn’t mince words. “Thirty years and countless dead women later, people still don’t seem to get it. Sex buyers are brutal. Yes, only a few of them kill, but many are violent. That’s why the sex industry can never be made safe. A legislative overhaul is long overdue.”

The sex trade is a system predicated on power imbalance. Those bought and sold will almost always have significant vulnerabilities. This includes women and girls of color, those who have survived sexual abuse, those in foster care and LGBTQ youth. While the gruesome violence committed by these serial killers is unusually extreme, very few people in prostitution have not experienced some form of violence inflicted by a buyer.

Sex trade survivors consistently tell us that violence from sex buyers is the norm, not the exceptionResearch shows that sex buyer comments and review boards online normalize narratives of sexual violation and violence against women. And, according to research, 92.2% of women in the sex trade report being subjected to physical violence, such as being raped, shot, strangled, burned, beaten, stabbed or punched. A 2018 study of 65 prostituted women — including trans women in the US — also found 61% suffered traumatic brain injuries while in the sex trade.

On the other side of the equation, sex buyers are often men with disposable incomes, good jobs and families. These men sit at their six figure jobs, buying people for sex during lunch. When money is exchanged, many buyers often seem to believe they have a free pass to violate, degrade or even torture. They ostensibly rely on the fact that law enforcement sees sex buying as harmless and low level.

The Green River Killer explained it best: “The plan was: I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could. I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes because they were easy to pick up without being noticed.”

For far too long our laws have enabled exploitation, providing virtually a free pass to continue buying sex and condemning those sold in the industry to an unending cycle of exploitation. A steady stream of buyers ensures that traffickers and pimps are always kept in business. But we are on the brink of change.

Last month, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed groundbreaking legislation that made Maine the first state in the nation to partially decriminalize prostitution (which is based on the Equality Model, adopted in many European countries and Canada). Maine’s new law will hold accountable pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners, while providing those who are in the sex trade with services, not criminal penalties. Similar bills are pending in Massachusetts and New York. These laws send a clear signal that people sold in the sex trade deserve exit services, not arrest, and that sex buying is anything but harmless.

We don’t have to speculate on the impact of partial decriminalization. Similar legislation in France was adopted in 2016 and has resulted in 1,247 prostituted women receiving services and a 54% increase of criminal investigations into pimps and traffickers in the first three years of implementation. Enforcement operations have confiscated almost 2.35 million euros from exploiters, money which is being reinvested in protection and rehabilitation of survivors. Sweden, which passed a similar law in 1999, has drastically decreased sex trafficking and exploitation by penalizing sex buying and making the purchase of women and feminized bodies outside of the cultural norm in their country.

Like any proposed solution, there is opposition. Opponents of the bill support full decriminalization, which would make all aspects of the sex trade legal, including not only prostituted people, but also exploiters — pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners. No matter what side you stand on, we all agree that prostituted people shouldn’t be criminalized. But the opposition claims that decriminalizing pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners will create a safer environment for those in prostitution — that a legal sex trade will enable the screening of violent buyers. This proposition defies logic, and reality has proven this assumption dead wrong. In places where the sex trade is legal or fully decriminalized, trafficking and illegal activity explode. And so does violence against women.

Without accountability measures in place for pimps and sex buyers, we leave the market unfettered and unchecked. In Germany, where the sex trade is legal, it’s estimated that over 1 million men buy sex each day, and traffickers exploit the most vulnerable in legal brothels. In New Zealand, where the sex trade is decriminalized, police find it almost impossible to identify sex trafficking, in part due to laws prohibiting investigations of legal brothels. Where there is a legal sex trade, pimps and traffickers hide behind business licenses, and an illegal industry invariably booms beside the legal one.

“If we truly want to do the right thing for people in the sex trade we need to shrink the marketplace, not grow it,” Robin emphasizes. “We must provide people with meaningful alternatives to prostitution and hold the people who cause us the most harm accountable.” It’s time to adjust our laws to match our understanding that no person, however vulnerable, is disposable.

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